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Code-switching is a linguistics term denoting the concurrent use of more than one language, or language variety, in conversation. Multilinguals, people who speak more than one language, sometimes use elements of multiple languages in conversing with each other. Thus, code-switching is the syntactically and phonologically appropriate use of more than one linguistic variety.

Code-switching is distinct from other language contact phenomena, such as borrowing, pidgins and creoles, loan translation (calques), and language transfer (language interference). Speakers form and establish a pidgin language when two or more speakers who do not speak a common language form an intermediate, third language. On the other hand, speakers practice code-switching when they are each fluent in both languages. Code mixing is a thematically related term, but the usage of the terms code-switching and code-mixing varies. Some scholars use either term to denote the same practice, while others apply code-mixing to denote the formal linguistic properties of said language-contact phenomena, and code-switching to denote the actual, spoken usages by multilingual persons. [1][2]

In the 1940s and the 1950s many scholars called code-switching a sub-standard language usage.[3] Since the 1980s, however, most scholars have recognised it is a normal, natural product of bilingual and multilingual language use.[4]

In popular usage outside the field of linguistics the term code-switching is sometimes used to refer to relatively stable informal mixtures of two languages, such as Spanglish or Franponais, or to refer to dialect or style-shifting, such as that practiced by speakers of African American Vernacular English as they move from less formal to more formal settings.

Social motivations for code-switching

Code-switching relates to, and sometimes indexes social-group membership in bilingual and multilingual communities. Some sociolinguists describe the relationships between code-switching behaviours and class, ethnicity, and other social positions.[5] In addition, scholars in interactional linguistics and conversation analysis have studied code-switching as a means of structuring talk in interaction.[6] Analyst Peter Auer suggests that code-switching does not simply reflect social situations, but that it is a means to create social situations.[7]

Markedness Model

The Markedness Model, developed by Carol Myers-Scotton, is one of the more complete theories of code-switching motivations. It posits that language users are rational, and choose (speak) a language that clearly marks their rights and obligations, relative to other speakers, in the conversation and its setting.[8] When there is no clear, unmarked language choice, speakers practice code-switching to explore possible language choices. Many sociolinguists, however, object to the Markedness Model’s postulation that language-choice is entirely rational.[9][10]

Communication Accommodation Theory

The Communication Accommodation Theory (CAT), developed by Howard Giles, professor of communication, at the University of California, Santa Barbara, seeks to explain the cognitive reasons for code-switching, and other changes in speech, as a person seeks either to emphasize or to minimize the social differences between him- or herself and the other person(s) in conversation. Prof. Giles posits that when speakers seek approval in a social situation they are likely to converge their speech with that of the other person speaking. This can include, but is not limited to, the language of choice, accent, dialect, and para-linguistic features used in the conversation. In contrast to convergence, speakers might also engage in divergent speech, with which an individual person emphasizes the social distance between him- or herself and other speakers by using speech with linguistic features characteristic of his or her own group.

Code-switching and Diglossia

Main article: Domain specificity and metaphorical code-switching

In a diglossic situation, some topics and situations are better suited to one language over another. Joshua Fishman proposes a domain-specific code-switching model [11] (later refined by Blom and Gumperz)[12] wherein bilingual speakers choose which code to speak depending on where they are and what they are discussing. For example, a child who is a bilingual Spanish-English speaker might speak Spanish at home and English in class, but Spanish at recess. [13]

Mechanics of code-switching

Code-switching mostly occurs where the syntaxes of the languages align in a sentence; thus, it is uncommon to switch from English to French after an adjective and before a noun, because, in French, adjectives usually follow nouns. Even unrelated languages often align syntactically at a relative clause boundary or at the boundary of other sentence sub-structures.

Linguists have made significant effort toward defining the difference between borrowing (loanword usage) and code-switching; generally, borrowing occurs in the lexicon, while code-switching occurs at either the syntax level or the utterance-construction level.[14][15][16]

In studying the syntactic and morphological patterns of language alternation, linguists have postulated specific grammatical rules and specific syntactic boundaries for where code-switching might occur. None of these suggestions is universally accepted, however, and linguists have offered apparent counter-examples to each proposed constraint.[1][17] Some proposed constraints are:

  • The Free-morpheme Constraint: code-switching cannot occur between bound morphemes. [18]
  • The Equivalence Constraint: code-switching can occur only in positions where “the order of any two sentence elements, one before and one after the switch, is not excluded in either language.” Thus, the sentence: “I like you porque eres simpatico.” (“I like you because you are likable.”) is allowed because it obeys the relative clause formation rules of Spanish and English. [18]
  • The Closed-class Constraint: closed class items (pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, etc.), cannot be switched.[19]
  • The Matrix Language Frame model distinguishes the roles of the participant languages.[20]
  • The Functional Head Constraint: code-switching cannot occur between a functional head (a complementizer, a determiner, an inflection, etc.) and its complement (sentence, noun-phrase, verb-phrase). [21]

Note that some theories, such as the Closed-class Constraint, the Matrix Language Frame model, and the Functional Head Constraint, which make general predictions based upon specific presumptions about the nature of syntax, are controversial among linguists positing alternative theories. In contrast, descriptions based on empirical analyses of corpora, such as the Equivalence Constraint, are relatively independent of syntactic theory, but the code-switching patterns they describe vary considerably among speech communities, even among those sharing the same language pairs.[22]

Types of switching

Scholars use different names for various types of code-switching.[citation needed]

  • Intersentential switching occurs outside the sentence or the clause level (i.e. at sentence or clause boundaries).
  • Intra-sentential switching occurs within a sentence or a clause.
  • Tag-switching is the switching of either a tag phrase or a word, or both, from language-B to language-A, (common intra-sentential switches).
  • Intra-word switching occurs within a word, itself, such as at a morpheme boundary.

Examples of code-switching

Spanish and English — Researcher Ana Celia Zentella offers this example from her work with Puerto Rican Spanish-English bilingual speakers in New York City.[23] In this example, Marta and her younger sister, Lolita, speak Spanish and English with Zentella (ACZ) outside of their apartment building.

Lolita: Oh, I could stay with Ana?
Marta: — but you could ask papi and mami to see if you could come down.
Lolita: OK.
Marta: Ana, if I leave her here would you send her upstairs when you leave?
ACZ: I’ll tell you exactly when I have to leave, at ten o’clock. Y son las nueve y cuarto. (“And it’s nine fifteen.”)
Marta: Lolita, te voy a dejar con Ana. (“I’m going to leave you with Ana.”) Thank you, Ana.

Zentella explains that the children of the predominantly Puerto Rican neighbourhood speak both English and Spanish: “Within the children’s network, English predominated, but code-switching from English to Spanish occurred once every three minutes, on average.”[23]

Hopi and Tewa — Researcher Paul Kroskrity offers the following example of code-switching by of three elder Arizona Tewa men, who are trilingual in Tewa, Hopi, and English.[24] They are discussing the selection of a site for a new high school in the eastern Hopi Reservation:

Speaker A [in Hopi]: Tututqaykit qanaanawakna. (“Schools were not wanted.”)
Speaker B [in Tewa]: Wédít’ókánk’egena’adi imbí akhonidi. (“They didn’t want a school on their land.”)
Speaker C [in Tewa]: Naembí eeyae nąeląemo díbít’ó’ámmí kąayį’į wédimu::di. (“It’s better if our children go to school right here, rather than far away.”)

In their two-hour conversation, the three men primarily spoke Tewa; however, when Speaker A addresses the Hopi Reservation as a whole, he code-switches to Hopi. His speaking Hopi when talking of Hopi-related matters is a conversational norm in the Arizona Tewa speech community. Kroskrity reports that these Arizona Tewa men, who culturally identify themselves as Hopi and Tewa, use the different languages to linguistically construct and maintain their discrete ethnic identities.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Bokamba, Eyamba G. (1989) Are there syntactic constraints on code-mixing? “World Englishes” 8(3), pp. 277-92.
  2. Clyne, Michael. (2000) “Constraints on code-switching: how universal are they?” in Li Wei (ed.) The Bilingualism Reader. Routledge; and Genessee, Fred (2000) “Early bilingual language development: one language or two?” in Li Wei (ed.) The Bilingualism Reader.
  3. Weinreich, Uriel. (1953) Languages in Contact. The Hague: Mouton.
  4. Goldstein, B. & Kohnert, K. (2005) Speech, language and hearing in developing bilingual children: Current findings and future directions. Language, Speech and Hearing services in Schools, 36, 264-67.
    • Gutierrez-Clellen, V. (1999) Language choice in intervention with bilingual children. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology. 8, 291-302
    • Kohnert, K., Yim, D., Nett, K., Duran, P. F., & Duran, L. (2005) Intervention with linguistically diverse preschool children: A focus on developing home languages(s). Language, Speech and Hearing Services in Schools. 36, 251-63.
  5. See:
    • Heller, Monica. (1992) The Politics of Codeswitching and Language Choice. In C. Eastman (ed.) Codeswitching. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
    • Rampton, Ben. (1995) Crossing: Language and Ethnicity among Adolescents. London: Longman.
    • Pujolar, Joan. (2000) Gender, Heteroglossia and Power. A Sociolinguistic Study of Youth Culture. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
  6. See:
    • Li Wei. (1998) The ‘Why’ and ‘How’ Questions in the Analysis of Conversational Codeswitching, in Code-Switching in Conversation: Language, Interaction, and Identity. P. Auer, ed. pp. 156–76. London: Routledge.
    • Sebba, Mark and Tony Wooton (1998) We, They and Identity: Sequential Versus Identity-Related Explanation in Code Switching, in Code-Switching in Conversation: Language, Interaction, and Identity. P. Auer, ed. pp.262–86. London: Routledge.
    • Cromdal, Jakob. (2001) Overlap in Bilingual Play: Some Implications of Code-Switching for Overlap Resolution. Research on Language and Social Interaction 34(4): pp.421-51.
  7. Auer, Peter. (1984) Bilingual Conversation. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  8. Myers-Scotton, Carol. (1993) Social Motivations for Codeswitching: Evidence from Africa. Oxford: Clarendon.
  9. Auer, Peter (Ed.) (1998) Code-Switching in Conversation. London: Routledge.
  10. Woolard, Kathryn. (2004) "Codeswitching." In A. Duranti (ed.) A Companion to Linguistic Anthropology. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell. pp. 73-94.
  11. Fishman, Joshua. 1967. Bilingualism with and without Diglossia; Diglossia with and without Bilingualism. Journal of Social Issues 23(2), 29-38.
  12. Blom, Jan-Petter and John J. Gumperz. 1972 Social Meaning in Linguistic Structures: Code Switching in Northern Norway. In: J. J. Gumperz and D. Hymes (eds.), Directions in Sociolinguistics. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
  13. Functions of Code Switching in Schoolchildren’s Conversations Reyes, Iliana. University of Arizona.
  14. Gumperz, John J. (1982) Discourse Strategies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  15. Poplack, Shana & Sankoff, David (1984) Borrowing: the synchrony of integration. Linguistics 22(269): 99-136.
  16. Muysken, Pieter (1995) Code-switching and grammatical theory. In Milroy, L. & Muysken, P. (Eds.), One speaker, two languages: cross-disciplinary perspectives on code-switching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 177-98.
  17. Bhatt, Rakesh M. (1995) Code-switching and the functional head constraint. In: Fuller, Janet et al., Proceedings of the Eleventh Eastern States Conference on Linguistics, Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics, Ithaca, NY, pp. 1–12.
  18. 18.0 18.1 Sankoff, David, and Shana Poplack. (1981) “A Formal Grammar for Code-Switching”, Papers in Linguistics 14(1-4), pp.3-45.
  19. Joshi, Aravind. (1985) “How much Context-sensitivity is Necessary for Assigning Structural Descriptions: Tree Adjoining Grammars” in D. Dowty, L. Karttunen, and A. Zwicky (eds.) Natural Language Parsing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  20. Myers-Scotton, Carol. (1997) Duelling Languages. Oxford University Press.
  21. Belazi, Heidi, Edward Rubin, and Almeida Jacqueline Toribio. (1994) “Code Switching and X-Bar Theory: The Functional Head Constraint”. Linguistic Inquiry 25(2), pp.221–37.
  22. Poplack, Shana (2004) "Code-Switching". In Ammon, U., N. Dittmar, K.J. Mattheier and P. Trudgill (eds), Sociolinguistics. An International Handbook of the Science of Language and Society. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. 2nd edition.589-96.
  23. 23.0 23.1 Zentella, Ana Celia. (1997) Growing Up Bilingual. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
  24. Kroskrity, Paul V. (2000) Language ideologies in the expression and representation of Arizona Tewa identity. In P. V. Kroskrity (Ed.), Regimes of language: Ideologies, polities, and identities (pp. 329-59). Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.

See also

Selected bibliography

  • Alvarez, Celso. (1999) Codes. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 9(1-2):28-31.
  • Bailey, Benjamin. (1999) Switching. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 9(1-2):241-43.
  • Blom, Jan-Petter, and John J. Gumperz. (1972) Social Meaning in Linguistic Structures: Code Switching in Northern Norway. In Directions in Sociolinguistics: The Ethnography of Communication. J.J. Gumperz and D. Hymes, eds. Pp. 407–34. New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston.
  • Heller, Monica. (1988) Codeswitching: Anthropological and Sociolinguistic Perspectives. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Milroy, Leslie, and Pieter Muysken (1995) One Speaker, Two Languages: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives on Code-Switching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Poplack, Shana. (1980) "Sometimes I'll start a sentence in Spanish y termino en español": toward a typology of code-switching. Linguistics 18(7/8): 581-618.
  • Romaine, Suzanne. (1989) Bilingualism. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
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